Right now, we're riding the crest of next-wave caviar. Luxe salted sturgeon roe is emerging from a troubled recent history, during which demand and avarice led to overfishing and pollution, thus diminishing wild stocks. Eggs from the most lauded breeding grounds, the Black and Caspian seas, are currently banned in the United States. Fortunately, there are other options. Sturgeon eggs have long been harvested elsewhere.
North America was a major source of caviar until its stocks were decimated over a century ago. But now they're back and better than ever. Advances in technology and fish farming have led to more control over production and quality. And other fish besides sturgeon are now producing eggs that are worth a look.
One person on the leading edge was Rod Mitchell, who founded Brown Trading in Maine in 1991. Without him, such chef and gourmand favorites as diver scallops and line-caught cod might not exist. Mitchell saw trouble brewing in the Caspian and Black seas early and started casting about for other sources. Among them is Snake River in Idaho. The small farm boasts pristine spring water and fish known as white sturgeon for the color of their bellies.
Another producer with the long view was Hossein Aimani of Paramount. "In the beginning, farmed caviar was very disappointing," he says. "Today, there is no ceiling for great quality product, no matter the origin. Now farmed can be at the level of wild caviar."
The three crucial steps are selecting the best fish, maintaining clarity and temperature of the water and, most importantly, production and selection of the roe. Time-wise, there is a very small window. Aimani insists on removing the eggs and then washing, draining, salting and canning them in under nine minutes. Malossol is a Russian-derived word meaning "little salt." Aimaini puts the salt content here at 3.75 percent but relies on the California farm to judge properly, as each sac has different needs. "The caviar master is the only person who knows exactly how much salt is in there," he says.
Eggs from other fish have long been seen as value alternatives to the good stuff. Today, some examples approach caviar quality. Bowfin is kind of an ugly duckling. It's viewed by the denizens of Louisiana where it lives as not worth eating. But some 30 years ago, John Burke found locals who were processing the roe like caviar, with good results. He started doing the same, and targeted chefs. One early adopter in the 1980s was Emeril Lagasse, who was then at Commander’s Palace.
Burke sold the company a year ago to three ambitious women: Alden Lagasse is married to the chef; Amy Wilson's husband works for him; Alison Vega-Knoll is a New Orleans chef and restaurateur. These three connected food people came together to promote a unique local product.
In Champagne season, we reach for the caviar. Excellent examples now come from China, the world's largest producer, as well as Italy, Israel and many more countries. But the U.S. has bounced back too, with a vigorous industry and fair prices. Here we go local, with three of our favorites from recent tastings.
Browne Trading Company Snake River White Sturgeon www.brownetrading.com; $95 per ounce
The shiny gray-green medium eggs are slightly firm, with a gorgeous, delicate flavor that ranges from briny to vegetal. They're the most rich, complex and luxurious of the bunch, with fully integrated salt that doesn't taste like a cure. The finish is very clean.
Louisiana Caviar Co. Cajun caviar www.cajuncaviar.com; three 1.5 ounce jars for $105
The beads are tiny and dark, the texture smooth. The flavor is direct and not too strong, with salted butter and marine notes dominant, and a long, salty finish.
Paramount Caviar Malossol www.paramountcaviar.com; $59 per ounce
These medium-dense black beads are extremely buttery, nutty and smooth, with a decent briny hit and a delicate iron accent. They have a real wow factor up front and a piquant finish.